The Home: Exploring Place’s Intrinsic and Attributed Meaning

Individuals and communities sense that certain places are meaningful; this experience is common, accepted, and often taken for granted. In order to gain a fuller understanding of the intricacies of space and place, it is important to consider how this meaning emerges. To do so, we must investigate mankind’s relationship with physical and metaphoric space. Is a place’s meaning intrinsic or attributed? Yi-Fu Tuan, Vanessa Ochs, and Gaston Bachelard offer diverse theoretical approaches to this question. These thinkers meditate upon the significance of the home, proposing distinct and overlapping methods to examine space and place. An exploration of these conceptions of home will uncover a deeper debate about the origin, nature, and effect of place’s meaning. The themes of boundaries, selfhood, and memory in Tuan, Ochs, and Bachelard’s works construct varying notions of home, which illustrate the intimate, complex relationship between mankind and meaningful place.

Tuan’s understanding of home is rooted in his discussion on the separation of home from its surroundings. Describing the creation of a new settlement, Tuan writes, “Immediately, differentiation occurs; on the one side there is wilderness, on the other a small, vulnerable, man-made world” (166). A space is only emotionally meaningful if it is a “well-defined place” with distinct boundaries (166). When these boundaries are not visible, men must intervene to differentiate the home from the world around it. Tuan explains, “The integrity of a place must be ritually maintained” through symbolic processions that define a place’s physical and metaphorical limits (166). Tuan argues that the significance of the home rests upon its dwellers’ ability to perceive the home’s uniqueness in undifferentiated space. “If [houses and streets] are distinctive,” he writes, “This perceptual quality would greatly help the inhabitants to develop the larger place consciousness” (171). A sense of place in the home emerges from a comprehension of the home’s boundaries, an impression that must be cultivated and maintained in order to form and preserve a place’s meaningful integrity.

The question of differentiation also appears in Ochs’ article “What Makes a Jewish Home Jewish?” Ochs investigates the agency of materiality in the home and asserts the significance of differentiation in place-making. Recounting the sentiment of an informant who used Jewish objects to distinguish her home from the non-Jewish world, Ochs writes, “One could just as easily say that it is not this informant who is setting up the objects to create boundaries, but the objects themselves that create a boundaried world in which my informant lives.” Tuan insists upon the need for human intention and maintenance to distinguish home from external space, but Ochs suggests the active participation of material objects in creating a home’s boundaries as well.

In contrast to Ochs’ interest in the material world, Bachelard places the importance of the home’s differentiation in an oneiric, visionary realm. For Bachelard, home is an “embodiment of dreams,” a protective shell in which to daydream safely, solitarily, and creatively (15). But even this abstract, poetic place has distinct boundaries, as Bachelard muses, “We shall see the imagination build ‘walls’ of impalpable shadows, comfort itself with the illusion of protection—or… tremble behind thick walls, mistrust the staunchest ramparts… the sheltered being gives perceptible limits to his shelter” (5). Echoing the analysis of Tuan’s work, Bachelard emphasizes the inhabitants’ perception and construction of the home’s boundaries in space. But Bachelard extends the agency of human perception further than Tuan does. He demonstrates the total power of imagination in differentiating home from metaphysical space. This imaginative boundary creation directly shapes and sustains one’s access into the poetic depths of place. These differing perspectives on the agents of the home’s differentiation provide insight into the possible origins of a place’s meaning.

Themes of selfhood appear throughout these thinkers’ portrayals of home as meaningful place. Does the home produce and form the inhabitant’s identity, or does the inhabitant’s identity produce and form the home? Ochs addresses this inquiry directly, and her answer asserts the reciprocity of the relationship between mankind and physical space. While Ochs validates her informant’s claim, “My Jewish things reflect Jewish actions,” she also asserts, “Things found in the home facilitate Jewish living and create, maintain, and transmit Jewish identities.” An inhabitant actively invests her selfhood into the materiality of her home through the selection, utilization, and placement of objects. But still, as Ochs writes, “Things make us.” We participate in the formation of our physical home, and the physical home participates in the formation of our identities. This influence is possible because materiality possesses its own implicit identity; “things in a Jewish home have Jewish identities, as solid, erratic, or angst-filled as the Jewish identities of people,” Ochs argues. Tuan, on the other hand, insists upon the personal, emotive connection to place as the main constituent of identity. He writes, “An awareness of other settlements and rivalry with them significantly enhance the feeling of uniqueness and of identity” (166). Like Ochs, Tuan finds, “For personal selfhood, [the] world is the house” (164). But this selfhood requires a sense of territorial, defensive rivalry—a form of emotional, interpersonal relationship that, Tuan argues, materiality cannot provide. Ochs disagrees. She illustrates how the absence of certain objects contributes to a homeowner’s identity in opposition to the world of “other.” Ochs observes, “Objects whose very absence or prohibition from use at specific times points loudly, articulately, and evidently to the Jewishness of the space. Absent (or typically absent) are specifically ‘other’ objects such as Christmas trees, wreaths, colored lights…” Ochs identifies a sense of rivalry, which Tuan finds in the human experience, within the physical materiality of a space.

Nuancing Och’s assertion of the reciprocal relationship between mankind and place in the formation of selfhood, Bachelard explains the facilitating role of home in the imaginative emergence of identity. Bachelard describes the home as, “The space that has invited us to come out of ourselves” (11). Human agents are responsible for unearthing their selfhoods from within, but this process is accelerated by the creative stimulation of home. While refuting the direct agency of place in creating identity, Bachelard demonstrates that the home is an essential instrument and framework for the imagination’s development of the self. He claims, “In short, the house we were born in has engraved within us the hierarchy of the various functions of inhabiting. We are the diagram of the functions of inhabiting that particular house, and all the other houses are but variations of the fundamental theme” (15). Portraying the home as a protected, inspiring space for daydreaming, Bachelard illustrates the home’s capacity to assist human imagination in creating an inhabitant’s identity. Due to this intimate relationship, the home, according to Bachelard, “is also an embodiment of dreams” (15). Tuan echoes this sentiment that homes may reflect and manifest the self as he writes, “Their dreams are quickly convertible into houses and lawns” (171). Both Tuan and Bachelard deny the agential power of material space in building identity, but, like Ochs, they recognize the inherent reflections of personal selfhood that characterize the home.

Memory and tradition often constitute or supplement a place’s meaning. These motifs generate questions of significant space in its relation to time, to our conception of the past, and to our decisions for the future. An exploration of Tuan, Ochs, and Bachelard’s perspectives on the nature of space, memory, and tradition will reveal the intricate effects of a place’s value. Tuan’s theory demonstrates the human effort required to impose tradition and memory onto a place. He writes of the affluent Beacon Hill, “Residents are proud of the place’s traditions; they have the leisure and education to produce a pamphlet literature that tastefully draws people’s attention to the neighborhood’s heritage” (172). Place-related memory and tradition must be produced, highlighted, and maintained by men; tradition is not inherent in a place. Tuan emphasizes, “Past events make no impact on the present unless they are memorialized in history books, monuments, pageants, and solemn and jovial festivities that are recognized to be part of an ongoing tradition” (174). The effect of a significant place is not permanent through time; its inhabitants must conserve, nurture, and continually recognize memory in order to impose a sense of tradition on place.

Ochs presents a different scene of time and space; “Within Jewish homes, things, people, and even times of day and season of the year and of life interact in a fluid process.” Memory and the materiality of the home are deeply entwined within a balanced network of reciprocal meaning. People actively insert memorial significance into objects, as Ochs’ explains, “Idiosyncratic usage [of objects]—or personalization—can honorably prevail and even add value” (16). But, inversely, objects innately possess memory, since, as Ochs writes, “Objects as well as people have a life span.” These objects, with their own stories, hold the power to activate tradition and produce meaning. In contrast to Tuan’s point, Ochs maintains that, in addition to the human imposition of memory on place, material space in itself may construct meaningful tradition. She considers, “For just as memory recovers lost, stolen, and rejected worlds and way of being left behind, do not objects—those present, those retrieved, and even those dimly recalled—do the same?”

Bachelard broadens the realm of space and time to an even more metaphysical level than the “fluid process” that Ochs describes. Bachelard proposes, “The house, like fire and water, will permit me … to recall flashes of daydreams that illuminate the synthesis of immemorial and recollected. In this remote region, memory and imagination remain associated, each one working for their mutual deepening” (5). In the place of home, daydreams connect memories to an imagined sense of timelessness. Inhabitants retain these imaginative memories for their whole lives, even after the house is gone, and these memories offer the comfort of continuity and stability. “Memories are motionless, and the more securely they are fixed in space, the sounder they are,” Bachelard writes (9). No memories are more securely fixed in space than those formed by daydreaming in the home, a place characterized by protection, timelessness, and solitude. Such motionless, place-fixed memories, especially those of childhood, transform the heartwarming sense of home into refined dream-images, accessible by the imagination throughout one’s life. Bachelard explains, “Real images are engravings, for it is the imagination that engraves them on our memories. They deepen the recollections we have experienced, which they replace, thus becoming imagined recollections” (32). Here Bachelard points to the creative agency of the human mind over memories of the home. Imagination imprints, enhances, and ultimately supersedes memory. The home provides a space in which to dream and imagine, but the power of memory derives from the power of the mind. This argument is evident especially in Bachelard’s presentation of the oneiric house: “There exists for each one of us an oneiric house, a house of dream-memory, that is lost in the shadow of a beyond of the real past” (15). While the material place of home facilitates imaginative abilities, eventually the home’s materiality is totally replaced by imagination itself. From this imagination, inhabitants produce the memorial significance of place.

An investigation into Tuan, Ochs, and Bachelard’s theories on boundaries, selfhood, and memory in the home may indicate the thinkers’ perspectives on the intrinsic or attributed meaning of place. Tuan insists upon the necessity of experience in order to form a meaningful place, as he clarifies, “Experience can be direct and intimate, or it can be indirect and conceptual, mediated by symbols” (6). The home falls under the category of direct intimacy, as Tuan defines the home as one’s “small world of immediate experience” with “extreme locality” (170). For places to become meaningful, we must employ our “refined capacity for symbolization” to imprint boundaries, identity, and traditions onto a place (5). Experiencing place is not enough to guarantee the production of meaningful place; one must employ the “effort of the mind” to create and maintain the concepts of place’s significance (171). From these observations, we may conclude that Tuan grounds his theory in the belief that place is not inherently meaningful–men attribute meaning to place. This claim is clear in Tuan’s distinction between space and place: “What begins as undifferentiated space becomes place as we get to know it better and endow it with value” (6). One must know and experience a place to then produce and supply valuable meaning onto a place.

Ochs finds a balance between the intrinsic and attributed meaning of place and validates both processes. She recognizes the importance of “the personal meanings that people find in their daily use of religious objects,” when value is intentionally assigned to materiality. But Ochs also discusses a deeper, innate value that underlies material elements of place. She remarks, “[Objects] function, in many Jewish homes, to embody, create, and express kedushah by their actual presence [and] by a hidden presence of which one is consciously or subliminally aware.” This sentiment contrasts with the opinion of Tuan, who writes, “The art object may seem to [command a world] because its form… is symbolic of human feeling” (162). Tuan shows that objects gain value through the human application of symbolism, but Ochs refutes this claim by suggesting that latent, inherent value of materiality is an active agent in place-making. Ochs finds that significant place is both “intentionally constructed” by people who endow it with value, as well as “continually constructed—by the objects themselves.” The mutual contribution of attributed and intrinsic value creates, shapes, and maintains meaningful place.

For Bachelard, the human mind is the central figure in producing and sustaining place-related meaning. Physical space provides an initial facilitation of the mind’s efforts, but soon the imagination surpasses the need for a safe framework of materiality. Bachelard demonstrates the home’s role as a catalyst for imaginative freedom and development with his words, The house shelters daydreaming, the house protects the dreamer, the house allows one to dream in peace” (6). Bachelard underlines the need for personal experience to find meaning in a place, like Tuan. But he uniquely emphasizes the specific role of imaginative experience. Bachelard expounds, “The places in which we have experienced daydreaming reconstitute themselves in a new daydream, and it is because of our memories of former dwelling-places are relived as daydreams that these dwelling-places of the past remain in us for all time” (6). A meaningful place is one in which men experience daydreaming. When present daydreams intertwine with the memories of a place, men actively engage in a life prescribed by dreams. This narrative is clear in Bachelard’s work, “To inhabit oneirically the house we were born in means more than to inhabit it in memory; it means living in this house that is gone, the way we used to dream in it” (16). Bachelard teaches that this lifestyle of imaginative freedom and creativity is virtuous, as we read, “How many scattered values we should succeed in concentrating, if we lived the images of our daydreams in all sincerity” (31). In Bachelard’s view, a place is intrinsically meaningful to the degree of its access to poetic depth, which depends on solitude, safety, and heart-warming memories. By creating a realm in which to dream, men attribute value to place by the powers of dreams and imagination. Through the marriage of memory and imagination, mankind dedicates immemorial, eternal meaning to place. This value is embodied and maintained by the inhabitance and performance of daydreams from a meaningful place.

The home is a boundaried place that bears a sense of selfhood and an abundance of memories and traditions. Tuan, Ochs, and Bachelard explore the complexities of home to better comprehend the emergence, character, and impact of place’s meaning. By analyzing these thinkers’ perspectives in relation to one another, we uncover complex diversity in the conceptions of space. The question of a place’s meaning as intrinsic or attributed invites deep conversation, saturated with conceptual harmonies and theoretical debates concerning the relationship between place and mankind.

By Lucille Marshall

Written for Space and Place in Jewish Culture  with Professor Barbara Mann at the Jewish Theological Seminary.

Works Cited

Bachelard, Gaston. The Poetics of Space. Boston: Beacon, 1994. Print.

Ochs, Vanessa L. “What Makes a Jewish Home Jewish?” Cross Currents. N.p., 1999. Web. 9 Dec. 2014.

Tuan, Yi-Fu. Space and Place: The Perspective of Experience. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota, 1977. Print


About lucystarer

college student. hiker. oatmeal eater.

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